On April 22, 1944, Col. Teague “Bucky” Harris was flying back from a bombing mission over Germany.
While in a landing pattern about 1,000 feet over his British base, the American pilot’s outfit came under intense fire, a desperate, behind-the-lines attack by German forces that was dubbed by author Ian McLachlan “the night of the intruders.”
“It was dark by this time,” says Harris, 97, leaning back in his cozy apartment at an Austin-area senior home. “First thing I noticed: The left wing had burst into flames. Then I saw flames in the cockpit. Everybody else bailed out. I found that I didn’t have any control over the airplane.”
He does not remember taking action to miss the British school and village visible below, but witnesses on the ground said that the plane lifted up as it approached the village and crashed into a field beyond.
“A lady came by the hospital later to thank me for missing her house,” he says. “Actually, I was coming straight to it, but landed off to the side. I accepted her thanks, but I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t crash-land. I crashed.”
Harris was taken to the morgue very badly burned, his back broken from neck to tail.
“When I came to for the first time, I figured I was going to burn to death,” he recalls. “I was stretched out on a table with a sheet over me. I started yelling. A nurse walked in, and she started yelling.”
Fortunately, he was wearing a flight suit that protected most of his body. His face, head, hands and feet, however, were scorched.
“I felt like I’d been crushed,” he says. “I was bleeding from my mouth and was down to a couple teeth. When they took the bandages off my face, it was all shiny and red.”
Four of his crew’s 10 members made it through the “night of the intruders.” Harris is the sole remaining survivor.
Born Aug. 17, 1919, in Gray Court, S.C. — “a stop in the road” — near land that the maternal side of his family had worked since the American Revolution, Teague Gray Harris Jr. was the son of a farmer and a schoolteacher.
In the fourth grade, they moved to Clinton, S.C. — “a good-sized little town” — where a friend gave him the nickname “Bucky” because he thought that the name “Teague” was too difficult.
Bucky remembers being a good kid, outdoorsy, a hard worker, always employed on the side. He did well in school and was particularly fascinated by engineering.
“I liked making things,” he says. “I wanted to know how things worked. I was good at woodworking when I had the necessary tools.”
He points out the furniture around his apartment that he made by hand. Bucky studied business at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., then, almost by accident, he was appointed by a local congressman to the United States Military Academy, in West Point, N.Y.
“I had finished college and was looking for a job,” he remembers about the year 1940. “Our congressman was a good friend of the family, and I was bugging him about a few things. He said he had a vacancy at West Point, and he submitted my name. First thing I know, I received a telegram saying to report to West Point. I threw it away. I really didn’t know much about West Point.”
By chance, he went on a blind date with a young lady, and just to make conversation, he told her about the appointment to West Point.
“She said it was the most wonderful place in the world,” Harris says. “I couldn’t sleep that night and woke to tell my folks: I’ll check it out. First thing that happened when I got there, I realized I was trapped.”
Ironically, he had no previous training, while others in his family had gone through the ROTC program at Clemson University.
“I had nothing to do with the military,” he says. “And I’m the only in the family who went into the military. Stayed in it for 31 years.”
Before and after the fateful crash
Because of the impending war, West Point accelerated its training. After graduation and before deployment overseas, Harris was in Smyrna, Tenn. He and a friend went on a date with a couple of young women — one was the base commander’s daughter, the other the daughter of the next senior officer.
“Somehow, the conversation led to talk of flying,” Harris says. “And we agreed to take the gals on an unauthorized joy ride. The crew chief helped us into the adventure by parking the plane — fueled and ready to go — in a prearranged place. We took the girls on a flight above the town.”
Harris had risen to second lieutenant by the time he served at Horsham St. Faith Field in England.
“I had learned to fly back in college, training instead of going on furlough,” he says. “Flew B-24s. Looks like a boxcar. Along with the B-17, which is a better airplane to fly. They called it the Flying Fortress. The name of our plane was ‘Bomb Totin’ Mamma.’ I was on my 11th bombing run when I got shot down.”
The Allies were preparing for an invasion of the European mainland in 1944, so the bombers targeted missile sites, train stations and transportation yards throughout Germany and France. He admits that there were no special preparations to avoid civilian casualties.
“It was mass bombing,” he says. “We’d take off, climb to 28,000 feet, then get into formation. We had 1,000 planes, so it took us an hour just to get into formation.”
When he returned stateside after the crash, he was stationed close to his home in South Carolina. He wanted to keep flying, so this lifelong practical joker found a way to sneak back into the pilot’s seat.
“I was supposed to never fly again,” he says with a grin. “At one point, they sent me to a psychiatric hospital, and I ended up in St. Petersburg, Fla. Half the people there were crazy; the other half were goofing off. I realized I didn’t want that on my military record. So … those records got lost. They went into the trash can.”
When he finally regained permission to fly, it was an assignment to ferry retired B-17 bombers to Arizona and West Texas.
“It was a good time to see if I could still fly,” he says. “I figured I’d get a copilot. ‘No, you don’t get one. Not even a crew. You fly alone.’ I thought, well, that’s a good way to go.”
His last assignment was as commander of a base in Greece.
He met his wife, Virginia Grant Harris, now deceased, while at home on leave in South Carolina. Similar to his folks, her family had put down deep roots in the Greenville area.
“The war was still on,” he says. “My sister and I had gone out on New Year’s Eve, and this gal stopped by the table. I figured she was a pretty good-lookin’ gal. Had my sister fix me up on a date.”
Bucky counts two sons, Teague Gray Harris III and John Bolt Harris, both civil engineers, who are married to two of his biggest fans, Dragana Harris and Susan Harris, who sat with this reporter during the interview.
Turns out, he is very well known at his senior home.
“I wouldn’t qualify as an angel,” he says. “I haven’t done anything bad, but I like to stir things up.”
Bucky has savored his long life.
“I want to live to be 100,” he says “I’ll make it.”